The Perfect Ayckbourn Appetizer

A Strange Pair, by Alan Ayckbourn, at Dalnavert House, through February 14, 2016

Reviewed by Michelle Palansky

It’s that time of year again, The 16th Annual Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s Master Playwright Festival, and 2016 is in celebration of British author Alan Ayckbourn.

With Ayckbourn, it’s the numbers that get thrown around a lot: 70; 70 plays; the man has written over 70 plays throughout the course of his long, prodigious, and honoured career. Extraordinary. And that’s on top of his work as a successful director and talented actor.

So where to start at this year’s festival? With a dozen productions and readings on offer from February 3–21, Echo Theatre’s A Strange Pair is the perfect appetizer to begin your Ayckbourn buffet.

Like the best appetizers, A Strange Pair is just barely a mouthful, with the two short short plays clocking in at fifteen minutes apiece. There is enough to whet the appetite without stuffing you with too much Ayckbourn all at one go.

The first play, Countdown, was produced in 1962, as one of a collection of pieces from different authors of the time, exploring the theme of marriage. A married couple sits down to tea and the audience gets to hear their unspoken thoughts, vacillating from poisonous to conciliatory, as they muddle through their very ordinary repast on a terribly ordinary day.

The second piece, A Cut in the Rates, was commissioned by the BBC in 1983 for a documentary that chronicled the steps of staging a play. A rates collector visits the house of an illusionist in order to collect on unpaid bills.

strangePair2Set at the Dalnavert Museum, the lavish Victorian interior helps to both emphasize and mitigate the dated quality of the scripts. Originating from the early 60s and the early 80s, the pieces would not sit easily in a modern setting. There is a certain fussiness and formality to the mode and manner of the plays that looks and sounds very well against all of the Victoriana.

Ayckbourn spent most of his career writing and directing theatre at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, previously the Library Theatre, which was a theatre-in-the-round established on the first floor of the Public Library. Many of his plays were first created and directed for theatre-in-the-round, and setting Countdown in the parlour of Dalnavert, with seating on either side of the room, gets the audience reasonably close to this experience. There is so much more fun to be had when watching the staged intimacies of a married couple, if you also get to watch your fellow audience members react to their miserable musings. Some are openly amused at the couple’s difficulties while others cast sidelong, withering glances at their partner. It’s the play within the play and it works wonderfully well.

A Cut in the Rates delivers the audience to the basement of Dalnavert to watch the illusionist and his assistant bamboozle the over-worked rates collector. This could have been a staging disaster but director Ray Strachan deftly avoids any major issues. Because the play is so short, audience members are not so fussy about standing for the duration of the piece, and limiting capacity to 20 members per performance ensures that the sight lines remain reasonably clear, and also it’s relatively easy to move the audience from room to room.

Countdown, with its spoken subtext, would have been considered rather cutting edge for the early 60s. Today, the convention is a little worn but there is still pleasure to be had. In such an intimate piece, it’s all about the small gestures: the wincing of the eyes, the thinning of the lips, the soft, exasperated sigh. Veteran actors Kevin Klassen and Charlene Van Buekenhout, as husband and wife, bring considerable perverse delight to their performances.

A different kettle of fish is A Cut in the Rates. This is pure, unadulterated farce and it’s great fun to watch the actors, joined by Stefanie Wiens playing an utterly disheveled collections officer, let loose in this silly bit of fluff.

The musical entertainment was a wonderful idea in conception but a little lacking in execution. Used as a bridge between performances, the early audience ends their evening with music and the late show begins their evening with the same. Expertly accompanied by Ron Krug, Stephanie Wiens delivered a handful of British music hall gems, gamely delivered but sorely lacking in direction and preparation. However, the programme promises special surprise musical guests throughout the run, so this is certainly not the final word on the musical part of the evening.

A Strange Pair, presented by Echo Theatre at Dalnavert House, 61 Carlton St., Winnipeg MB, runs two shows nightly February 4–6, February 8–9, and February 11–13, 7:30 and 8 p.m. Matinees on Sunday February 7 and Sunday February 14 at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m., and 4:30 p.m. Matinees do not include musical entertainment. Tickets are $20 for evening performances and $15 for matinees. For advance tickets go here.


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